This Day In History: December 28

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On December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signs the Endangered Species Act into law. The act, which Nixon called for the previous year, is considered one of the most significant and influential environmental laws in American history.

The government started taking action to protect endangered species in the early 1900s, as it became apparent that hunting, industry and deforestation were capable of wiping out entire species. The near-extinction of the bison, once extremely common in North America, provided ample evidence that such protections were necessary, as did the death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914. Early acts of Congress focused mostly on animals that were commonly hunted, and although the Department of the Interior began publishing a list of endangered species in 1967, it did not have the adequate powers to help animals in need.

Recognizing the need for proactive legislation, Nixon asked Congress to expand protections. The result was the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Among other things, it mandated that the federal government keep a list of all species in need of protection, prohibited federal agencies from jeopardizing such species or their habitats, and empowered the government to do more to protect wildlife. Though the Act only applied to the actions of the federal government, it was wildly successful. In its first 30 years, the less than one percent of the plants and animals added to the Endangered Species List went extinct, while more than 100 showed a 90 percent recovery rate. Over 200,000 acres of crucial habitats have also been protected under the act. The ESA is widely regarded as the strongest endangered species law in the world, and one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in history.